Ridley Scott’s Alien is a remarkable classic that was kind of hard for me to appreciate fully until now. I did see the director’s cut screening in October of 2003, but it didn’t have the intended effect at the time. However, thanks the Cinemark theatre chain, I was given the chance to see Alien in its original theatrical cut. I went into the screening consciously putting myself into the proper mindset intending to experience it the right way. I have always appreciated the filmmaking and artistic talents of the movie, but now, I can connect with it on a level of beautifully crafted horror and suspense.
When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate. After landing on this hostile planet, three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), first officer Kane (John Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – set out to discover the origin of the signal which Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ship’s computer soon decipher it as not a distress call but a warning. Onboard a derelict alien spacecraft, Kane discovers a chamber filled with thousands of alien eggs, and in investigating too closely, he is attacked by a parasite. When he is brought back to the Nostromo, the crew has no idea the danger they have brought upon themselves as this parasite soon gives birth to a vicious organism that is bred for only one purpose – death.
The strongest quality of this film that struck me was indeed the structure and pacing. While for a modern audience it might be too methodical, Scott makes every slow burning moment count for something. It’s all building towards something while establishing mood, atmosphere, character, or story. The best result from this structure is that there are segments where Scott gives the audience a sense of false security. This is best reflected in both after the facehugger dies and relinquishes its hold on Kane, and when Ripley has safely escaped aboard the shuttle at the end. You feel as if the danger has past, but especially with the former, you feel like another shoe is waiting to drop creating this lurking uncertainty. There’s still a long way to go in this film, and you know something much more threatening is waiting to emerge. When the ship ascends from the planet, it’s signaling the elevation in threat for these characters and the audience. And this film repeatedly elevates things to a new, unexpected level.
Scott also does an amazing job immersing an audience into the subtle sense of isolation and unsettling calm of the Nostromo. This has as much to do with the cinematography as it does the amazing sound design. The ship always has this ambient sound of probably the power running through it, which further unnerves an audience. And when things get loud, it gets very loud to evoke the terror and visceral rawness of the moment. This all creates a contrast of audio where Scott makes things extremely low and quiet when he wants to engage your attention and put you on the edge of your seat. Then, he blasts something onto the soundtrack to jar you out of your seat. I don’t find this to be jump scares. This is an excellent manipulation of suspense and tension to effectively and skillfully scare an audience. It’s putting you right in there with the unnerving feeling these characters are experiencing.
How Alien is shot is perfect in its use of wide compositions to reflect scope and solitude early on, especially during the excursion to the derelict spacecraft, and later on, how the cinematography moves in closer to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo. Even more intense is when Scott has the shot get right into the actor’s faces during the peak of fear and terror to where you can see every bead of sweat on their skin. There’s some great and beautiful camera work from the large movements revealing the Space Jockey and using steadicams for sweeping movements. Yet, I also love the subtle handheld work that creates a sense of unease and rawness at times. The lighting schemes also create the signature Ridley Scott noir mood and atmosphere. Light and shadow are used to stellar effect enhancing all the unnerving, heart pounding sequences, and Scott is known for immersing his films in thick darkness. As the immediacy of everything reaches its apex as the self-destruct is counting down, the blasting exhaust vents and flashing lights intensely reflect the chaotic nature of the third act. It’s shocking to me that director of photography Derek Vanlint has an extremely short filmography shooting only six films over a thirty-four year span. Apparently, the bulk of his career was spent on television commercials. What he did here would make you believe he had a largely notable film career because it was indeed the work of a master cinematographer.
Ridley Scott was very much inspired by the sort of “used future” production design of Star Wars. Instead of the clean and polished aesthetics of a 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted something that felt gritty, textured, and lived in. The Nostromo is a very utilitarian craft with very few sleek designs. It was created to be functional and practical to maintain a sense of relatable realism for the audience. It has the feel of a factory, oil rig, or submarine with all of its enclosed tight spaces and metal gratings. And the design of the alien spacecraft and all things related to the Xenomorph by H.R. Giger are truly alien in all aspects. It has a dark, gothic elegance to it. Giger always meshes together this sexualized aesthetic with his fascinating and twisted designs, and it creates this unsettling undercurrent of sexuality to all of these creatures that victimize our characters. Many have read a lot into these elements, but for me, it simply makes for a frightening and completely unique biology. The Alien feels threatening in every way with all of its fanged teeth, exoskeleton design, and ultimately, it’s black as night sheen. This is a creature meant to inhabit the darkness as an animalistic hunter. How Ash describes it as the “perfect organism” has always struck me powerfully selling every single-minded quality about it. It will use you to breed, and then, the others it will kill. It has no other purpose to exist but to destroy. I also love how the film constantly takes you by surprise as we witness the Alien’s life cycle. First, it’s this tiny little creature, but next time we see it, it’s seven feet tall! There’s an added shot in the director’s cut that I always liked when Brett goes looking for Jones the cat, and while he’s cooling himself off with the dripping condensation, there’s a shot of it hanging from the chains above. This is before we know what the Alien now looks like, and so, you wouldn’t pick up on it unless you already knew. Now, it did take a little bit of effort to put Prometheus out of my mind just to experience the originally intended mystique and fascination with the Space Jockey, but I was able to get there. I still enjoy Prometheus, but I wanted to experience Alien in its purest form.
Now, despite this being a serious film of horror and atmosphere, the interactions of these characters portrayed by this excellent cast create some much needed moments of levity. I constantly found what Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were doing to be immensely pleasing and funny. Parker and Brett are these two jokers who maintain the ship’s functions, and feel quite underappreciated for their hard work who try to leverage that out with some delightful exchanges. Kotto and Stanton have a great chemistry that brings some rich personality into the fold.
Tom Skerritt is very solid as Captain Dallas. He has that sense of authority and responsibility which clearly has him stand out as a leader. Yet, he’s fallible making decisions out of passion instead of adhering to regulations, but also, owning up to those decisions and errors. At the end of it all, he’s just a guy who wants to do his job and get home, but is forced to deal with something beyond his experience that ultimately does terrify him.
Then, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver who was an unknown talent at the time, and that played to an audience’s surprise. This one person that they are unfamiliar with in the cast is actually the heroin of the piece, and Weaver shows her stellar talent every moment she’s on screen. She holds her own opposite everyone very well projecting authority, strength, conviction, and decisiveness as Ellen Ripley. Yet, of course, the absolutely soul shattering terror that Ripley experiences is powerful through Weaver. She is vulnerable, but she can fight through it for her own survival.
This is unlike the constantly panicked Lambert who paralyzes with fear in the face of the alien, but her fear is entirely genuine and real with Veronica Cartwright’s fantastic talents making it something other than a potentially annoying character. Many would find themselves reacting like Lambert does, and it’s a testament to the characters that are able to keep their fear and emotions in check to carry onward.
Ian Holm’s performance is brilliant. It’s one of those things where you pick up on more in repeat viewings after you know the twist of Ash. You see the sinister probing eyes that observe a situation like it’s some lab experiment. Once you know who Ash is and what his purpose happens to be you can see his secret intent, especially during the chestburster scene. This twist is carefully setup throughout the movie in how he repeatedly enables the safe passage of the alien aboard the ship.
The great thing about these characters is that, despite the futuristic setting on a spacecraft, these are relatable people. They seem plucked straight out of our time and lives as rugged, blue collar space truckers. They’re regular people just doing a regular job, but it’s only that they’re towing ore across interstellar space instead of a highway or the like. They have realistic relationships such as Parker and Brett having some friction against the bridge officers because they get paid less even though the ship wouldn’t work without them. These people all have conflicts, friendships, and complicated dynamics between them, and this is further aided by very realistic and honest dialogue. The film surely doesn’t take time to explore the depth of these characters, but it is their behaviors and interactions that inform us of all we need to know about each one of them. That’s really how you write an ensemble movie, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing. You don’t need to get their life stories, you just need fully realized characters portrayed by great, suitable actors. And I would be remised if I didn’t mention John Hurt here. While he has the shortest screentime of anyone here, he puts in a solid performance that has a few moments of levity, but overall, is as authentic and strong as anyone else here.
The late Jerry Goldsmith seemed to regularly have conflicts with the filmmakers he worked with on how his scores should be crafted. Oddly, I find that in these cases, what it is that he’s pushed towards creating is ultimately the better choice for the film overall. Here, we get some great cues with the main theme being the best which exudes an aura of mystery, intrigue, and spookiness. It’s a subtle melody that does a lot to make things feel lightly ominous and dangerous without ever being overt. Simplicity can sometimes do so much in conjunction with how a film is shot and plotted. The music that Goldsmith composed here is exceptionally effective even if how most of it was used went against how he thought it should be.
Usually, when you know a horror film well enough, knowing where the scares are coming and everything, it tends to become less effective. However, upon this theatrical screening, many moments were still startling and scary. I really feel that experiencing Alien in the immersive environment of a movie theatre is the best way to do it. Maybe if you have a large HDTV and a stellar surround sound system, you could achieve that effect, but seeing all of the visual mastery on that large cinema screen was more than I could have imagined. It just gave me the amplified experience I was looking for with this movie, and why I was compelled and excited for this experience. Now that I’ve had that experience, my home viewing experience will be richer and more engaging.
It is undeniable that Alien is an eternal classic, but now, I am able to hold it up to that level of awe and recognition myself. Scott took what was a B-movie horror idea and turned it into an A-grade picture full of masterfully crafted artistry in all aspects with the cast being a glowing example. Ridley Scott is known for taking great care in creating immersive worlds not just on film, but for the actors and crew to live inside of. He locks you into this enclosed maze of a dark spaceship where the Alien could be hiding anywhere, and you feel the claustrophobic tension eating away at you. It can be a haunting, disturbing film for many, and while it has violence and blood, it is strategically used to intense effect. The same can be said about the Alien itself – only seen it shadows, in pieces. Scott only once or twice gives you a full fledged look at it. He keeps it like a startling nightmare – brief glimpses that horrify, much like Jaws. Unlike Jaws though, it wasn’t out of a necessity of the creature not working or being well designed, it was an artistic decision that worked brilliantly. There’s a lot of crap that was spawned from this film with bad sequels, poorly conceived crossovers, and a prequel that has proved divisive for many. Still, I can watch this film as a self-contained entity, and when done so, you can immensely appreciate that Ridley Scott and his vast team of highly talented artists and filmmakers made a stunning and iconic piece of science fiction horror.
It was an ambitious prospect to develop a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror classic Alien. However, Twentieth Century Fox was highly pleased with what burgeoning filmmaker James Cameron was putting to paper that they waited until he finished production on The Terminator to have him complete that script. It became a huge blockbuster hit in the summer of 1986, and earned several nominations and awards. Unfortunately, for me, there has always been something about this film I never quite liked, something that made it nowhere near as great as people made it out to be. Add to that the disdain I’ve developed in recent years for James Cameron. I don’t think he makes films as good as he thinks he does, he has a huge unwarranted ego, and his pioneering of 3D digital technology really burns me. I hate the trend, and I hate Cameron for igniting it. I will truly brush these feelings aside, and critique this film as it is to pinpoint my issues with it. There’s plenty for me to deconstruct here.
Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of the alien attack on the mining ship Nostromo, is awakened by a salvage ship after drifting through space in cryo-sleep for fifty-seven years in her escape pod. After her rescue, officials at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (regularly referred to as “The Company”) give her a cold reception by revoking her flight license. Much to her horror, they reveal that planet LV-426, where her crew discovered the alien, has since been colonized without incident. However, when communication with the colony is lost, Ripley initially refuses to help, but her recurring nightmares and coxing by a representative of the Company, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), convince her to accompany a group of Colonial Marines to investigate the situation. What awaits them all is a swarm of Xenomorphs that have infested the colony, the likes of which these marines are not prepared for, but Ripley will ultimately not be deterred from confronting and destroying the horror that haunts her.
I hate to start off on a bad note because there are highly admirable qualities to credit in this film, but this is an exploration of me understanding what I haven’t like about this film for so long. Only now, by way of actually analyzing the film, can I pinpoint those reasons. However, that doesn’t mean I have all bad things to say of it, but let me get the nagging issues out of the way first.
I feel Aliens is downgraded by its aesthetics. Part of that problem was the choice of film stock used in the Kodak Eastman type that was only in use for a very brief period of time. The reasons for that begin with excessive grain and ends with a difficulty in processing blue screen effects. Aliens is a very grainy film, and in addition to that, has very bleached out colors. The color palette is very flat. Blacks aren’t black, and with a film of this sort, creating light and shadow contrast is very important. This creates a rather visually bland presentation that fails to match the highly atmospheric quality of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original. I believe that some of these problems have been rectified on the Blu Ray release which Cameron himself supervised. I wish I could view that version so that, maybe, some of my gripes with the film would evaporate. However, that’s not all, but I will cover those later when I address the visual effects.
I have to take issue with some of the characterizations in this film. Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, & Michael Biehn are all excellent, and inhabit their roles well. Their roles are also well written and well conceived. Them, I have no issues with. It’s the arrogant, chest pounding, and sometime weak-willed Colonial Marines. Yes, they are big, colorful characters that are memorable and quotable. That doesn’t mean they’re well conceived characters. For example, let’s compare these marines to the elite team from Predator. A group that is memorable, quotable, full of personality, but also, not a bunch of guys you’d ever want to cross. They are not arrogant, just confident, but know how to respect a dangerous situation when they enter it. They operate like a cohesive unit, follow orders, have great respect for one another, and keep their mission objective clearly in view. They get the job done, and never flex any ego. The marines from Aliens do nothing but talk tough and act as if they’re invincible bad asses. I understand the intent of showing them as if they believe themselves to be so great that nothing can best them, and then, get dropped into a situation of a cold, hard reality check. The same thing happens in Predator, and I think it’s done better in that film because you see how realistically capable these soldiers are. They’re the real deal, and when you see that these seriously experienced, professional soldiers are afraid of what’s out there, it sells the situation even more. As for that reality check shocking the marines down to size? You still have Bill Paxton’s Hudson acting like a buffoon all the way through the film. Someone of this weak will and lack of backbone would never make it into any military organization today, and Hudson does more to sell the incompetence of this team than anything else. These marines also don’t follow orders when they’re given, and instead, subscribe to foolish, egotistical behavior to satisfy their own ignorant bravado. It’s the character I have issue with, not Paxton. I believe Bill Paxton to be a very good actor that eventually was given to chance to break out of this buffoonish stereotype, and that was a very thankful turns of events.
What really downgrade the quality of this film, for me, are the visual effects. Keep in mind that James Cameron comes from a visual effects background as I point out these issues. Firstly, and briefly, the use of rear screen projection backgrounds come off as low grade. Even George Lucas tried using this in Star Wars, but when he saw how bad it looked, he swore it off never to be attempted again. Cameron uses it here instead of blue screen effects, likely, because of the aforementioned crappy film stock he chose to use. Again, this is from a filmmaker who started in visual effects. Next up, the miniature vehicle photography is not convincing. Miniatures are small and lightweight, but the photography of them is meant to fool you into perceiving them as full-sized versions that weigh, sometimes, thousands of pounds. Filmmakers tend to shoot them at a higher frame rate that when transferred to 24 frames per second, create a slower moving object with a lot of mass to it to sell their realism. Here, all the vehicles and ships move about with no realistic weight. They fly around or drive across the planet’s surface with no gravity or mass about them. The drop ship banks, lands, and takes off like a radio controlled toy. The armored personnel carrier throttles around and bangs into corridors like a go-cart. Something with a lot of mass, like these vehicles should have, would maneuver slower with bigger, wider movements. More mass means more power is needed to propel them. Think of how an eighteen wheeler, a humvee, or a helicopter move. They maneuver slower than lighter weight vehicles, but that is not translated into this film. I also have had this exact same problem with the future war sequences in Cameron’s Terminator films. SkyNet’s huge Hunter-Killer gun ships flying through the air and making hair-point turns always looked incredibly awkward and unrealistic to me.
An extension of all this is the lack of visual atmosphere used to hide the limitations of sets, miniatures, and visual effects. Ridley Scott and his team achieved this visual disguise greatly with Alien using light, shadow, and smoke to disguise any budgetary limitations, or to blend miniatures, live action, and visual effects into a seamless whole. Clearly, something Scott continued on with in Blade Runner. The bonus of this in Alien is that it created a rock solid mysterious horror atmosphere that intensifies the overall unsettling nature of the movie. Here, you can see the lack of depth and scope in the shot where you know it’s a soundstage set when it’s supposed to be a convincing alien planet landscape. I’d expect that from an old episode of Star Trek that didn’t have the budget or technical knowledge to disguise these production shortcomings. I would not expect that from a film that had an even BIGGER budget than Ridley Scott’s film which achieved better results on a smaller budget. Again, James Cameron comes from a background of visual effects where he should know how to blur those lines, but what is displayed here would not at all reflect that experience.
James Horner’s score is somewhat mixed for me. The cues he uses for the marines early on are very thin and weak. His snare drum track sounds like a demo recording done in someone’s garage. Again, I have to refer to Predator as Alan Silvestri really brought a powerful, meaty militaristic theme to that film. Since Aliens really is more of a science fiction action picture than a horror genre creation, I can’t critique a lack of suspenseful cues, but it could’ve helped. The score services the big action moments well, but despite what praise it has been given in decades past, I never found it all that compelling or exceptional.
Sigourney Weaver surely earned the respect and praise she received from her performance in this film. The evolution of Ellen Ripley here is entirely on the mark. Being the sole survivor of such a horrific experience, she would be a haunted woman waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, and be determined to see this species wiped out of existence. She’s traumatized, but is able to battle through that. She takes her fear, and uses it to focus her eventual leadership skills. You constantly see her battle against her intense fear in order to see her real world nightmare end. Weaver also projects a warm, motherly sensibility while caring for the equally traumatized Newt. The makeshift family they create with Hicks is rather brilliant.
Speaking of which, Michael Biehn brings his great, natural humanity to Corporal Hicks. He shows the character to be a natural leader with confidence, decisiveness, and intelligence. Hicks is definitely the guy that will have your back all the way. Just as he was in The Terminator, Biehn shines through as a wonderfully dynamic and emotionally powerful actor. His warmth and chemistry with Sigourney strikes the right, soft chord. They work extremely well together with a mutual respect that penetrates through the screen. I’m not sure that the original casting choice of James Remar would’ve embodied those qualities so strongly or naturally. Michael Biehn was an amazing, fortunate happenstance in this instance.
Paul Reiser had some nice breakout roles in the 1980s including his appearances in the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies. Here, I love his performance! Burke is the textbook company man working his public relations angle with a compassionate façade while hiding a smarmy corporate mentality. Reiser plays both ends of that spectrum well, and he allows them to mesh into a cowardly weasel who always seems a slight bit suspicious. At first, he comes off as a genuinely decent fellow, but as the story unfolds, Reiser gradually peels that back as Burke gets closer to his goal. It’s a nicely subtle piece of acting that rides a fine line,, but it surely is effective.
At this point in time, Lance Henriksen was making an impact with some unique, standout performances. Bishop is a career highlight, indeed. “Artificial person” so fits the description of him. He has human qualities, but they are slightly off. Again, subtlety enters the approach with an air of eerie creepiness to the droid Bishop. Not in a malevolent way like Ian Holm’s Ash from the previous film, but as something just uneasy, unsettling about him. At first, he doesn’t appear to be anything but human. However, the more time an audience spends with him, the more these peculiar aspects nag your attention. Because of Ripley’s own unease around a droid, an audience can also gain an uncertainty about him, but it’s great how the relationship between Ellen and Bishop builds towards a place of trust.
Now, James Cameron bringing in Stan Winston and his team was a brilliant, logic move. You would need someone of Winston’s caliber to put together something impressive like the Alien Queen. The improved designs of the egg, facehugger, and chesterburster are excellent bringing more articulation and realism to them all. Now, I don’t have a preference between the original “smooth head” Alien from Ridley Scott’s film or the more “ridged head” Aliens featured here. I think they both work fantastically, and surely suit the demands and lighting aesthetics for their respective films well. Here, the more detailed and ridged craniums give the drones more character with a few little highlights here and there to make them standout more against the darker environments. Stan Winston was a legend in this field, and his contributions made the industry what it is today. He will be missed beyond words due to his passion, personality, skill, and artistry. He left behind a legacy of respect and admiration.
I have zero problems with the story in Aliens. It is a great progression and a smart direction for a sequel. Following Ripley through this journey from a troubled woman trying to avoid her trauma to one who confronts it head on to defeat it with intense courage is a powerful story. She finds her strength through the new emotional bonds she forges with Newt and Hicks. The more action oriented approach is something I don’t have much of an issue with, but a little more suspense and terror could’ve gone a long way here. There are those moments, but they’re more “jump out and scare you” bits instead of finely crafted suspense. Aliens has some exciting sequences that are well conceived. The climax has become a cinematic classic with Ripley squaring off with the Alien Queen in the powerloader. It was a very original, massive crowd pleaser that put Ripley into a great, forceful position.
I’ve only ever watched the Special Edition of Aliens as it is James Cameron’s preferred version of the movie, and while it has all the substantive character depth and proper storytelling elements, it does feel too long at just over two and a half hours. Cameron seems intent on making overly long films that lack the rhythm and pacing he so excellently captured in The Terminator. Once he got a big budget, he started over-bloating his scripts and cutting down on storytelling innovations. Sometimes, the restrictions of a smaller budget and limited resources force a filmmaker into creating a better, tighter product than when they are given access to all the tools with free rein to use them how they wish. I feel that is the case with Jim Cameron. As time went on, he seemed less interested in making compelling stories and more interested in flexing his budgetary ego. I respect the innovations he has motivated in the realm of digital visual effects, but great special effects alone do not make for a great film. However, all he seems interested in is pushing technology forward at the expense of quality storytelling.
All of this began here with Aliens. He still was creating a quality story backed by a few strong, solid actors, but he surely could’ve tightened it up in areas during scripting. Still, what irritates me when watching this film are many of the technical issues with visual effects, rear screen projection, the photography of the miniatures, and the poor choice of film stock. Furthermore, the poorly conceived Colonial Marines, aside from Hicks, are cartoonish buffoons that like to stroke their own egos instead of getting serious in a serious situation. These are all elements that make a substantial negative impact upon the film for me. It has plenty of good qualities to it from the strong lead performances and practical creature effects, but with a film so long, the negatives inevitably linger to repeatedly damage my enjoyment of the movie. Maybe, one day, I will watch the theatrical version and feel differently about that shorter cut, but if I was to judge this the way I intended, it had to be the director’s preferred version. This is an off occasion where I didn’t review the film for the sake of opening people’s eyes or rousing anyone’s interest. It really was just so I could deconstruct what always bothered me about this movie, and see the shortcomings that have prevented my full fledged enjoyment of it. I’m sure many would not perceive these same issues, but if everyone had the same point of view on everything, it would be a very uninteresting world.